Developer: Retro Studios
Release Date: February 21st, 2014
Platform: Wii U
Well, another year, another 2D platformer published by Nintendo. In what feels like a sea of Mario games, it’s refreshing to jump on something other than Goombas in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Thankfully, Retro Studios’ sequel to Donkey Kong Country Returns is a shining example of the 2D platformer genre, potentially surpassing even recent Mario games.
Story and Characters
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze starts off with The Kongs (Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky) having a party on Donkey Kong Island. They are then attacked by Snowmads, a group of cold-weather animals lead by the Walrus King Lord Fredrik. The attack blasts the Kongs off of their home island and far into the distance as the Snowmads take over. Now, Donkey Kong and crew have to travel across islands dotting the ocean to take back their home.
The story here does its job by setting up the foundation for the rest of the game. With its simple plot, Tropical Freeze can have varied environment design thanks to the different islands the player will reach on their travels back home. The variety also helps to show off interesting boss designs. When combined with non-linguistic voice acting, interactions between characters give the game life and presents the characters’ motives to the player without the need for exposition.
Visual Style and Art Direction
With its 2.5D style (3D-rendered characters and environments playing on a 2D plane), Tropical Freeze’s art may feel a bit familiar compared to other 2.5D games. In some cases, levels can feel outright bland. However, the level design in these sections makes up for it, both aesthetically and functionally.
There are even some levels that break away from the 3D art in favor of a silhouette design. These levels really pop out and look fantastic, with everything in the foreground blacked out with the only color being accents on the playable characters.
The camera system in Tropical Freeze also helps the 2.5D style by making more use of 3D space. While other games in the genre may have two or three “layers” that players can switch between, the camera system used in this game makes the levels feel like they aren’t stuck in 2D. The game also does a good job of incorporating background elements into the foreground to add depth.
If you have played previous entries in the Country series, the sound design is pretty much what you would expect, with animal grunts and barrel cannon bangs in similar quality to Returns. Another effect that I thought was a nice touch was the varying amounts of applause you would get at the end of a level depending on how many of the collectables you got.
The soundtrack this time around is composed by David Wise, the original composer for the older Country games in the Super Nintendo era. Many tracks in Tropical Freeze pay tribute to Wise’s older work in the form of remixes or remasters. Wise’s musical style, for new as well as remade tracks, really make the levels pop. While the game could have easily had the same or similar sounding tracks for every level on an island, not being stuck to one theme really helps to set the tone for each level when there is a tangible change. This translates well into the boss fights, with my favorite track being the boss fight on Juicy Jungle Island.
If you have played recent Nintendo releases, Tropical Freeze plays as well as you would expect. It looks great, sounds great, and controls similar to previous Country titles. While it doesn’t share the tightness of games like Rayman Origins and New Super Mario Bros., the controls in Tropical Freeze feel the tightest of the Country series, especially once you get used to them (For me, it took a few minutes). Getting collectables in the levels and the minecart/rocket barrel sections are still as fun as in Returns, but the Bonus Levels could have used some variety besides “collect 100 bananas in 30 seconds to get a puzzle piece”.
The biggest change from Returns is the addition of two more playable characters, Dixie and Cranky, that come with their own special abilities. While Diddy can hover using his jet pack, Dixie can fly a little bit higher using her ponytail and Cranky can bounce a little higher using his Ducktales-esque cane. The game offers 2-player support where the second player can choose which of the three to play as, but the first player can only play as DK. In single-player, one of the three Kongs rides on DK’s back, allowing the player to use their abilities.
On the technical end, Tropical Freeze offers multiple control configurations for those who hated having to shake the Wiimote to roll in Returns. That option is still available though if you want to use it anyway. Another feature I appreciate is the blacking out of the Wii U Gamepad screen while playing. This fixes the problem I have with games that display the same image on both screen like the Wii U Mario games, although it pretty much renders the Gamepad screen useless for anything other than Off-TV Play.
Besides the levels, the main highlight of the islands are the boss fights, which I found to be the most fun I’ve had with bosses in a while. While games like Super Mario 3D World may have tons of bosses that are recycled and one really good final boss, Tropical Freeze’s decision to focus on a handful of good boss designs makes them more memorable. The boss fights are also more difficult in this case because part of the challenge is to figure out the patterns on top of the bosses not following the three-hit rule.
And with that, we’ve now hit the sticking point of the game, the difficulty. Some may love it, some may hate it, but it doesn’t change the fact that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a pretty challenging game. Personally, it’s nice to see a game that can respect the skill of the person who is playing it, but at the same time it may turn off those who just want a Donkey Kong game. In the end, it’s better than the game being too easy and over too quickly. Tropical Freeze does strike a good balance with its difficulty and with the exception of a few levels on the DK Island, most of the levels require skill to beat as opposed to trial and error.
The main game is definitely beatable, but the real challenge lies in the secret unlockable levels. These ramp up the difficulty, with some levels requiring precise, non-stop timing to survive. This may be more bearable if Tropical Freeze didn’t have a life system, which really seems to exist for the sake of tradition. Having this system doesn’t do anything but add a Game Over if you run out, breaking the flow that games like Rayman Origins have. The life system is my least favorite feature in the game, but in the overall experience, it doesn’t rear its ugly head that often.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is one of the best platformers I’ve played in a while. The difficulty of the main game with the addition of even more difficult secret levels makes this a satisfying experience for those seeking a challenge. This may also be its downside, as the game has a bit higher barrier of entry than other similar games on the Wii U. While it’s not a system seller, Tropical Freeze is a welcome addition to the Wii U library.